A re-emphasis is being made by joint base and Military District of Washington leaders to keep servicemembers out of Potomac River waters in Great Falls Park and adjacent areas.
In fact, the stretch of water from the Sycamore Island area to Chain Bridge is off-limits to all swimmers, waders and cliff divers.
The directive is more than a suggestion – the prohibition of water activities in the Great Falls/Potomac River Gorge area is the law in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia, and a directive against water activities was issued by the Military District of Washington in 1984.
An awareness and educational push by Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall’s Directorate of Emergency Services is aggressively underway to make Great Falls Park visitors understand the deadly dangers of entering those areas of the Potomac River.
“The command, DES, MDW and IMCOM as a whole is very, very concerned about ensuring that servicemembers, their family members, their battle buddies, civilians and friends are aware and educated regarding the safety issue that’s in our back yard so to speak,” DES Physical Security Specialist Tracie L. Miller said. “The bottom line is that it is not safe to go into the water.”
Statistics are not in favor for anybody entering the water to come out alive. According to the National Park Service, the operators of Great Falls Park, 51 percent of river-related accidents from Sycamore Island- four-tenths of a mile north of Little Falls Dam- to Chain Bridge end in death. In addition, 72 percent of Potomac River-related incidents in this area originate from shoreline activities like hiking, fishing or rock hopping.
“The statistics for death and injury in this area of the Potomac are absolutely staggering…Not everybody goes to Great Falls with the intent to swim,” Miller said. “A lot of the accidents actually start and stem from shore line activities and they end up in the water by accident.
In June 2013, those statistics hit home at the JBM-HH level when an Old Guard Soldier drowned in the Great Falls waters. Since 1972, this area of the Potomac has witnessed 674 water- related accidents and 22 drownings. In 1984, Fort Myer lost seven Soldiers due to water-related accidents in the falls area.
The Centers of Disease Control and Prevention offered its own drowning statistics. Nearly 80 percent of people who drown are male and one in five people who drown are children 14 years of age or younger. The CDC also warns that alcohol use is involved in up to 70 percent of water accident deaths.
Miller noted that surface waters may seem calm, but below the surface, the multi-mile off-limits zone is filled with rushing water, under currents, underwater caves that can easily trap a swimmer, rapids and large rocks and stones.
“Swimming in these waters is extremely dangerous,” Miller said. “We want to make sure people understand that while this park is open and available to servicemembers. There are certain aspects of the park that are off limits - not just to servicemembers — but to everybody because of the safety concern.”
Miller also noted that cliff diving is also against the law in the gorge and falls area.
“People like to jump from the cliffs. Those things are prohibited,” Miller warned. “Not only prohibited by the Military District of Washington, but prohibited by law. Regardless, if you are a servicemember, civilian or a family member, it’s against the law.
“If you’re fortunate to survive jumping in the water, you’re going to face some legal ramifications as a servicemember or a civilian,” she added. “There are rules and laws prohibiting this for their safety. It is extremely important that military personnel know this.”
Miller informed the Pentagram that all servicemembers – not just Soldiers – are forbidden to enter the Great Falls waters.
As the summer season has begun, JBM-HH DES has initiated an educational strategy to inform servicemembers and civilians of the Great Falls off-limits policies.
“We’re doing a multi-faceted approach to getting the word out about this,” Miller said. “We’re getting the information out through social media. We’re also listing the information through MDW that it is off limits. We’re going to integrate this into the newcomer’s brief. When you first arrive at the post, you will know that this place is off limits.”
Miller offered a number of key suggestions for those wishing to visit the natural beauty of Great Falls Park.
“It is very safe to assume that personnel visiting Great Falls don’t know the currents and the hydraulics and the speed of the waters,” she said. “Check in at the visitor center- that’s key. Rangers will tell you [what parts of the park are safe]. The bottom line is if you are in the Great Falls area, you shouldn’t be in the water. This area is deadly for swimmers.
“It’s a beautiful park,” she continued. “We’re not saying the park is off limits. We want people to be able to take advantage of the beauty of this area, but we want them to do it with safety and responsibility.”
For Great Falls Park information, call 703-285-2965 or visit www.nps.gov/grta